UH team to test canal water
Earlier research found dangerous bacteria prevalent in water with sewage and runoff
A team of Hawaii scientists that tested waterways in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina will be taking water samples tomorrow along the Ala Wai Canal and nearby waters for the vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which is blamed for the death of a Honolulu man last week.
The University of Hawaii scientists investigated why there were so many cases of vibrio vulnificus infection after Katrina and found the bacteria was more virulent and in higher numbers at the mouth of canals, where runoff and sewage were concentrated.
The Centers for Disease Control reported that at least 17 people contracted a vibrio vulnificus infection in the two-week period after Hurricane Katrina, when spilled sewage and runoff were streaming into homes and flooded streets. Three of the victims died.
The infections led to the UH research, which was conducted with three other mainland institutions.
The water samples taken tomorrow will help determine how prevalent and virulent the bacteria are along the Ala Wai and in nearby open waters after nearly 50 million gallons of sewage was pumped into the canal.
Friends and family of Oliver Johnson, a 34-year-old mortgage loan officer, believe sewage in the harbor contributed to his death Thursday night from a massive infection. Johnson fell or was pushed into waters at the Ala Wai Harbor last Friday.
UH assistant oceanography professor Grieg Steward, who was part of the Louisiana research team, said it's not clear why the virulent strain of vibrio vulnificus, a cousin of cholera, was more prevalent in waterways where sewage and runoff had been pumped.
Vibrio vulnificus bacteria come in two types. One is fairly benign and usually found in cleaner, open sea water. The other is pathogenic and more likely to cause infection.
On the mainland, populations of vibrio vulnificus decline in the winter. But Hawaii's waters are warm year-round, potentially providing an ideal camping ground.
Even so, health officials have said, there are only a handful of people in the islands who contract infections from either ingesting food contaminated with vibrio vulnificus or getting the bacteria in open wounds.
Steward's research assistant, Olivia Nigro took, a sample at the mouth of Kaneohe Stream on March 2, after heavy showers spurred sewage spills and runoff, and found "significantly higher counts" of vibrio vulnificus there. She has not yet analyzed them to determine whether they were the more virulent, or type B, strain.
Nigro is studying vibrio vulnificus in Kaneohe Bay and how it is affected by storm runoff.
In a news conference yesterday, Mayor Mufi Hannemann asked the public not "to make a rash judgment" about Johnson's death.
"The verdict from the forensic and scientific experts is still out," he said. "That being the case, we want to wait until all the facts are in before we start assigning blame. Many, many things ... still need to come out."
Meanwhile, doctors say Johnson's alcoholic liver disease may have played a role in his swift decline. Patients with low immune systems or liver problems have difficulty fighting off vibrio vulnificus infections.
"The liver is this filter that is real important as far as bacteria," said Dr. Alan Tice, a UH infectious-disease expert. "When it's damaged, it's a real big problem."
Jim Leavitt, attorney for the Johnson family, said he would have to be convinced that Johnson's death was caused by his liver problems "and not a lot of sewage in the Ala Wai Canal."
"The family would like to know what happened, how it happened and if there's anybody who is responsible for this," he said. "Any family would need to understand how their healthy, active son and brother could suddenly die like this. This is very hard."
Funeral services for Johnson will be held tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Sherwood Forest in Waimanalo.
In an e-mail, the family said a scattering of leis and flowers in the ocean will be done.
Star-Bulletin reporter Rod Antone contributed to this story.